Major MOOC providers shifting focus to fee-paying students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • MOOC enrolment reached a new global peak in 2017, with strong growth from 2016
  • The pace of year-over-year growth, however, slowed during the year, reflecting in part an increasing emphasis on fee-paying students among the major MOOC providers

About this time every year, Class Central, a leading MOOC course listing site, prepares an insightful summary of major trends in enrolment and product development from the world’s major MOOC providers (where “MOOC” equals “Massive Open Online Courses”).

The 2017 trends review has just been published, and it points to an overall slowing of enrolment growth in the MOOC space during the year.

However, put a large asterisk next to the term “slowing”. By Class Central’s reckoning, there were 78 million students enrolled in MOOCs in 2017, a roughly 35% increase over the 58 million students who registered for at least one course in 2016. This is indeed a slowdown from the year-over-year doubling of global enrolment that we saw between 2014 and 2016. But most providers in many sectors would no doubt still consider 35% growth from one year to the next a nice bit of forward progress.

the-top-five-mooc-providers-by-enrolment-in-millions-of-students-2017
The top five MOOC providers by enrolment (in millions of students), 2017. Source: Class Central

Perhaps more significantly, 2017 also marked a continuing trend of MOOC providers sharpening their focus on students that are prepared to pay for online learning. “Originally, all MOOCs were offered as free courses,” says Class Central. “While content varied greatly from course to course, MOOC providers essentially offered a single product: university courses packaged for online audiences and offered free of charge. The big MOOC providers have now developed products and services that range in price from free (or partially free) to costing millions of dollars.”

The revenue models for MOOCs have evolved quickly over the last few years, and now range from options for students to pay additional fees to earn certificates or course credits to enrolment in full degree programmes to larger corporate training programmes. The world’s leading MOOC provider by enrolment, Coursera, reportedly saw its base of fee-paying students increase by 70% from 2016 to 2017. The fifth-ranked MOOC platform, Udacity, now also has more than 50,000 fee-paying students in its Nanodegree programmes.

A lot of this growth in the fee-paying student base appears to be driven by students from outside the typical target groups for higher education institutions. As Class Central notes, “The real audience for [MOOCs] is not the traditional university student but what [former Coursera CEO Rick Levin] calls the ‘lifelong career learner’: someone who might be well beyond their college years, but takes online courses with the goal of achieving professional and career growth.”

Some MOOC providers, including sector leaders Coursera and EdX, have also ramped up their offerings for mid-career professionals through larger-scale corporate training programmes.

More degrees on the horizon

Also of note this year, MOOC providers are continuing to expand their full-degree offerings. Some of the early examples in this space include high-profile online degrees, such as the Masters of Science in Computer Science offered in partnership by Udacity and Georgia Tech. That programme has now enrolled 6,000 students, and other such university-MOOC provider partnerships around degree programmes are also showing strong results.

Strong enough that MOOC providers are launching even more degree options over the next two years. Coursera has said that it will launch between 15 and 20 new degree programmes by 2019. And Class Central adds that, “FutureLearn has announced that they will launch 50 degrees in partnership with Coventry University. XuetangX also announced three online Master’s degrees with Zhengzhou University.”

EdX, meanwhile, is reportedly underway with a new effort to launch a series of “MicroBachelor” programmes – a new model that is designed to break a traditional undergraduate degree down into a series of modular components. The company has not said much about the project so far but it has filed a trademark application for the term “MicroBachelors”, and CEO Anant Agarwal has clearly indicated that such modular programming is an important part of the company’s strategy going forward.

Speaking at a recent innovation summit hosted by the US Department of Education, Mr Agarwal explained that the company intends to build on its successful MicroMasters degrees with this new undergraduate model: “We will launch MicroBachelors within the next year or two and do the same modularization with the bachelor’s degree [as with the MicroMasters model].” The early thinking around such programming seems to be built around the idea that such programmes are again not for traditional university students. Rather, they are for students who could not attend a conventional on-campus degree programme, but that may want to use any such micro credentials as a ladder to degree studies online, or even on campus.

With all of these trends and examples in mind, we might say that there is certainly a competitive issue here for any higher education institutions that explicitly target mid-career professionals in their recruitment efforts. Equally, there are important strategic implications here for any institutions who aim to expand their recruiting efforts or programming for mid-career professionals or other lifelong learners who have been unable to pursue conventional degree programmes on campus.

“Over half a decade since their debut, MOOCs may finally have found their footing and a sustainable revenue model,” concludes Class Central. “No, they didn’t disrupt universities, but they may have changed how working professionals access continued learning and career advancement opportunities…Who knows, 2017 could just have been the year MOOCs became big business.”

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